06 Two Cells in SevillaTwo Cells in Sevilla: Don Quixote Is Hungry
Sonja Bruzauskas; Todd R Miller; Octavio Moreno; Benjamin Leclair; Greenbriar Consortium; David Kirk
Navona Records NV6174 (navonarecords.com)

Two cells in adjacent buildings overlook a square in 16th-century Seville. Gabriel Téllez (baritone Octavio Moreno), a monk who wrote under the name Tirso de Molina, is in his cloister; Miguel de Cervantes (tenor Todd R. Miller), along with his Servant (bass Benjamin LeClair), is in prison, accused of embezzlement.

Gabriel and Miguel lament over their “watery broth” and plead with the Cook (mezzo Sonja Bruzauskas) for better food, but she rebuffs them, lost in her dreams of romance. Trying to charm her, Gabriel and Miguel begin creating their now-classic tales of Don Juan and Don Quixote, respectively, until they’re interrupted by a letter signed “John Falstaff.”

Marec Béla Steffens’ clever, fanciful libretto is set to music by his father, German composer Walter Steffens (b.1934). The 38-minute opera, scored for oboe/English horn, clarinet, saxophone, cello and piano, in addition to the four singers, was premiered in Houston in 2016. The text is sung in parlando style, the vocal and instrumental lines lively and engaging. Given its economical forces and inherent entertainment value, with many familiar musical and literary references, this comical chamber opera is a natural audience-pleaser for conservatories and small opera companies everywhere.

The CD also includes Walter Steffens’ pensive, 12-minute song cycle, Five Songs on Hölderlin (2008), performed by Bruzauskas and pianist Tali Morgulis. No texts are provided, but the opera libretto and Hölderlin’s German verses, without translation, are downloadable from Navona’s website.

07 Elora SingersAnd So It Goes – Song of Folk and Lore
Elora Singers; Noel Edison
Naxos 8.573661 (naxos.com)

This superb recording literally cuts a choral swath through Canada, the United States and the British Isles, by including musical material that literally helped shape the cultural identity of those nations. Britain is represented here by compositions from Ivor Novello, Gustav Holst and Ralph Vaughan Williams. Several traditional airs are also present, as is the work of two Canadian composers: Jimmy Rankin’s JUNO-winning Fare Thee Well My Love and Eric Whitacre’s Go, Lovely Rose. From the US comes Billy Joel’s melancholy And So It Goes. With Joel’s poetry reframed in a fresh and almost hymn-like arrangement, the song takes on a whole new emotional life. Recorded by Nobert Kraft at St. John the Redeemer in Elora, this ambitious recording was produced by Kraft and Bonnie Silver; the two gifted pianists featured are Leslie De’Ath and James Bourne.

The award-winning Elora Singers is an all-professional vocal ensemble founded in 1980, that has thrilled the world with many memorable performances, as well as bringing Canadian vocal chamber repertoire to the international stage. The choir is, of course, the linchpin of the noted Elora Festival.

There are 21 pieces on this CD, each one a perfectly cut diamond – all refracting light in their own uniquely beautiful way. Of special note are Vaughan Williams’ Three Shakespeare Songs. The choir, expertly conducted by founding director Noel Edison, uses dynamics, sibilant consonants, control of vibrato and impeccable intonation to wend its way through the complex arrangements; it almost seems as if they can morph into a fantastically intricate one-celled being, displaying precision, inspiration and unfailing musicality in equal parts.

08 Halibut CheeksHalibut Cheeks & Other Love Songs
Leslie Fagan; Lorin Shalanko
Independent (canadianartsong.com)

Soprano Leslie Fagan and pianist Lorin Shalanko, both international performers and professors of music at Wilfrid Laurier University, are devoted to showcasing Canadian composers through their Canadian Art Song Series, which premiered with the release of Thread of Winter in 2016. This second recording in the series, which takes on the theme of love and romance, is bursting with heartfelt and melodious pieces performed with great warmth and passion. Since the prelude to romance is often a meal, the recording begins with the witty David L. McIntyre’s Creek Bistro Specials in which a sumptuous (and very Canadian) menu, from appetizers to desserts, is extravagantly presented in song. Nestled within the mains is the title track Halibut Cheeks and one can’t help but note a clever nod to Schubert’s Die Forelle in the piano part at the end of the Grilled Trout course.

In the selections that follow, the performers mine exquisite depths of emotion, first with Lionel Daunais’ Cinq Poèmes d’Éloi de Grandmont, then with Srul Irving Glick’s sensuous Seven Tableaux from the Song of Songs. Gorgeous selections by Matthew Emery and Michael Coghlan by turn frame Gladys Davenport’s Cool and silent is the lake, in which Fagan and Shalanko delicately evoke a sense of wonder at nature’s tranquility.

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01 Nesrallah LeonardelliUn Sospiro – Italian Art Songs
Julie Nesrallah; Caroline Leonardelli
Cen Classics CEN1469 (carolineleonardelli.com)

It is wonderful to hear distinguished Canadian mezzo-soprano Julie Nesrallah together with celebrated harpist Caroline Leonardelli perform the Italian art song repertoire. In this disc’s opening Bellini group, Nesrallah’s rich, secure voice brings ardent expression to these three love lyrics of which Lovely moon, you who shed silver light shines with melodic appeal. As with the disc’s other songs, the original piano accompaniments are replaced by fine harp arrangements, many by Leonardelli, that lend a dignified antique ambience. In Verdi’s setting of Gretchen’s prayer to the Virgin Mary (Oh, with mercy) from Goethe’s Faust, Nesrallah contributes dramatic power and vocal colour to the heartfelt plea. I particularly appreciate hearing both artists bring to life song groups by Puccini and Leoncavallo, each of which includes a mattinata (morning song). Puccini’s (Sun and love) is through-composed and has a gorgeous melody, while Leoncavallo’s cheerful romance, Mattinata, is in a more popular style with verse-and-refrain structure and conventional harmony.

Song composer Paolo Tosti is also known for his lighter style, and yet the two examples here make me wonder, especially his setting of d‘Annunzio’s Lasciami! It attains the peak of impassioned vocalism in Nesrallah’s interpretation, echoed by Leonardelli’s concluding harp solo. Following this work is Monteverdi’s well-known Lasciatemi morire (Arianna’s Lament), perhaps suggesting the high level of Tosti. Early songs by Respighi, including the uncanny Nebbie (Mist), are yet another revelation on this CD – highly recommended!

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02 Chansons d amourChansons d’amour d’Acadie et de France
Choeur Louisbourg; Skye Consort; Monique Richard
ATMA ACD2 2776 (atmaclassique.com)

New Brunswick’s Louisbourg Choir celebrated its tenth anniversary in this collaboration with the Skye Consort, a gifted early music ensemble whose mandate is to craft their own contemporary arrangements of seldom-heard vocal and instrumental pieces. For the first section of this recording, cittern-player Seán Dagher has arranged a number of charming selections from the Chansons folkloriques d’Acadie-La fleur du rosier and Chansons d’Acadie collections. Songs of love, travel, adventure and everyday life are delightfully and unreservedly performed by this accomplished choir, interspersed with spirited instrumentals by the ensemble.

The second half of the recording features chansons by little-known composer Jacotin Le Bel (1495-1556), who served in the royal court of France during the reigns of François I and Henri II. Here, the choir shines as director Monique Richard deftly leads them through the complexities of vocal polyphony and luxuriant voicings reminiscent of Josquin des Prés. In these renderings, one appreciates the small size of the chorus. With four or five to each vocal part, the singers are better able to navigate the fluidity of long melismas and realize greater clarity of text. Again, the Skye Consort intersperses with enchanting interludes.

04 BeardsleeBethany Beardslee sings Schubert; Schumann; Brahms
Bethany Beardslee; Richard Goode; Lois Shapiro
Bridge Records 9504 (bridgerecords.com)

The American soprano Bethany Beardslee, perhaps best known for her work with many of the major figures of 20th-century composition – most notably her interpretations of the work of the Second Viennese school and the American composer Milton Babbitt – tackles a decidedly Romantic compositional set on this 2018 Bridge release of a set of mid-1980s recordings. Although Beardslee is on record eschewing music that is simply entertainment and for the masses (articulating a similar proclamation to the 19th-century French slogan “Art for Art’s Sake” with her 1961 declaration, “Music is for the musicians”), Beardslee reveals herself to be a sensitive and appropriate interpreter of these Romantic-era masters.

Well accompanied by the fine pianists Richard Goode and Lois Shapiro, modernism be damned, as Beardslee teases out the subtle nuances and effervescent rhythmic feeling of these composers, particularly so on Franz Schubert’s bridging work between the Classical and Romantic eras. Of note here is the beautiful minor lied Gretchen am Spinnrade, which reminds listeners of the fact that the Faust legend remains relevant fodder for interpretation and exploration. With able accompaniment and clarity of recording, these compositions are not presented as ossified period-piece repertoire, but rather joyful texts capable of lifting the spirit.

01 Bach pour LutherBach – Pour Luther: Cantatas 76; 79; 80
Brunet; Taylor; Gagné; Blumberg; Montréal Baroque; Eric Milnes
ATMA ACD2 2407 (atmaclassique.com)

A glorious capture from June 2016 at the Église Saint-Augustin, Mirabel in Québec, this new ATMA Classique recording features some of Johann Sebastian Bach’s most beloved religious work. Duke Ellington’s sacred output aside, this body of Bach’s work arguably presents the greatest blending of the artistic with the spiritual, wherein artistic intentions are done explicitly as an article of faith and a testament to devotion.

Bach’s music is simultaneously ornate with specific detail (representing his faith) and straightforward in its clarity of purpose and messaging. To translate these intentions with creativity and respect is no easy task, but Eric Milnes – period music scholar, performer and conductor – does that and so much more when bolstered by a supremely talented group of Canada’s early music performers (who often band together as part of Montréal Baroque for that city’s annual early music festival).

The decision to use four vocalists (Hélène Brunet, Michael Taylor, Philippe Gagné and Jesse Blumberg) to sing the chorus portions of these cantatas imbues a resonant tonal clarity to the recording, while representing an admirable blend of musicological scholarship and creative decision making. Well-conceived and creatively inspired, this disc is a valuable addition to ATMA’s goal of releasing Bach’s entire body of sacred cantatas – and one that maintains their high standard of recording.

02 Handel AcisHandel – Acis and Galatea
Lucy Crowe; Allan Clayton; Benjamin Hulett; Neal Davies; Jeremy Budd; Early Opera Company; Christian Curnyn
Chandos, Chaconne CHSA 0404 (2) (chandos.net)

Acis and Galatea is a masque in one act, first performed in 1718 at Cannons, the summer residence of James Brydges, the Earl of Carnarvon. The text is anonymous (it is generally thought to be by John Gay, Alexander Pope and John Hughes), but it is ultimately based on an episode in Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Brydges employed a number of musicians, including five singers: a soprano, three tenors and a baritone. That unusual formation fits Acis and Galatea (a second soprano is needed for the initial and concluding choruses).

The work begins with a celebration of the pastoral life. The sea nymph Galatea loves the shepherd Acis. Their happiness comes to an abrupt end when the Cyclops Polyphemus, after a disastrous attempt to woo Galatea, kills Acis. After lamenting that death Galatea celebrates the transformation of the dead Acis into the living river flowing from Mount Etna to the sea. That of course represents the metamorphosis that completes the shape of the work.

There have been some successful earlier recordings. My own favourite has always been the Arkiv disc under John Eliot Gardiner, in which Norma Burrowes sings an absolutely luminous Galatea. On this new recording, Lucy Crowe is also very fine in the part. Orchestral accompaniment is excellent and special mention should be made of the sopranino recorder part (Ian Wilson) in Hush, ye pretty warbling choir!

03 Lili BoulangerLili Boulanger – Hymne au Soleil: Choral Works
Orpheus Vokalensemble; Michael Alber
Carus 83.489 (carus-verlag.com)

Although largely eclipsed by her older sister, the influential pedagogue, Nadia, composer Lili Boulanger produced a small body of astonishingly brilliant work in her tragically all-too-short life comparable to virtually anything written in 20th-century France. Such was the impact of her oeuvre that had she lived even a little longer than her 24 years, it’s almost certain that she would have become one of the century’s greatest composers.

The short choral works collected together on Hymne au Soleil present Boulanger – a devout Catholic – in a meditative and spiritual state, pouring a deeply religious intensity into this music. The crowning glory of this selection of 15 works is Psaume XXIV (Psalm 24), a declamatory cry of jubilation for multi-part chorus and tenor soloist (Davide Fior), in which powerful brass-like writing and modal harmonies provide a raw, primordial edge. Just as fine a piece is Soir sur la plaine, in which soprano Sonja Bűhler, tenor Joachim Steckfuß and baritone Christos Pelekanos solo as the chorus joins in this highly personal creation of great solemnity that resembles Fauré in its harmonies, if not in its music.

An overwhelming sense of mystery pervades this music – there are hints of plainsong – suggesting a deeply felt awe at the power of God’s presence. The Orpheus Vokalensemble, directed by Michael Alber – with pianist Antonii Baryshevskyi – create a dramatic atmosphere bringing out the richly varied sonorities of each piece with subtlety and restraint.

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